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The band broke that spell when they got together to film the music video for one-off single “Ready Cheeky Pretty,” which came out in early May and featured the band performing in front of colorful painted backgrounds. “It was weird,” YUUKI remembers of the reunion, “but also it was just refreshing.” Before, CHAI’s members would usually see each other at least twice a week for rehearsals. They’d always been a tight-knit band — identical twins MANA and KANA met YUNA in their high school’s music club in Nagoya; YUUKI rounded out the quartet when she moved to the city for college. They bonded over a love of music outside J-pop, and later western music. On PINK, first released on Japanese label Otemoyan Record, CHAI built off playful American new wave bands like Devo and the Tom Tom Club, with flicks of hip-hop, while pointing its neo-kawaii message toward Japan. But CHAI ended up developing fans across the globe, and re-released PINK in early 2018 on U.S. And U.K. Labels. On PUNK, 2019’s followup, the band dug their heels into their rock influences while channeling a more rebellious spirit into neo-kawaii (cute without the e, if you will). They became known for energetic live productions, complete with matching pink outfits and choreography. (The touches may recall J-pop girl groups, but the band prefers to cite their heroes in Devo.) They eventually took that show on tour with indie-rock stalwarts like Mac DeMarco and Whitney.
Live shows became one of the best ways for CHAI to spread their message — often, the members would give short, empowering speeches between songs — so the band found themselves recording the sort of music they thought would translate best to the stage. On WINK, that wasn’t an option, especially not while recording on GarageBand and collaborating over Zoom. Those restrictions freed the band to explore. “We actually got to focus on sound — just listening,” MANA says. She found herself digging into American hip-hop music like Mac Miller and Brockhampton, and wanted a way to infuse it in CHAI’s music. “I took that time to reevaluate what music meant to me, why I fell in love with music, what music do I really want to make?” she says. “I thought to myself, Oh, this is what I want. I want people to be able to bring this music home with them.”
WINK opens with a jarring shift from anything CHAI has done before, on the low-key, groovy “Maybe Chocolate Chips.” Past its R&B sheen, it’s the first song on a CHAI album to feature an outside artist, Chicago rapper Ric Wilson. The band simply thought the song needed a rapper, and they remembered Wilson, whose performance they enjoyed at Pitchfork Festival 2019. YUUKI marvels at how well Wilson got the song’s message — wondering if people would like their moles more if they imagined them as chocolate chips — all while working remotely and in English. “When he added his piece to it, it just made way more sense,” she says. The band had worked on features for other artists before, from Gorillaz to R&B collective MICHELLE, but hearing someone’s take on one of their songs was a new, rewarding thrill.